Emmanuel with ribbons

Lent 4 – The Parable of Belonging – March 27, 2022

The Parable of Belonging

Sunfish SailboatI hope you all saw our ribbons on the fence on the way in this morning!  They’re streaming in the sunny breeze like tell-tails on the boats out in the harbor, helping us to keep our sails trimmed and steer close to the wind.  Sailing is about communication — and balance, harmony, and teamwork — and about trust between crew and helmsman.  I grew up sailing on Lake Ontario, tacking in a narrow zigzag to get out of Sawmill Bay into the larger Chaumont Bay.  We’d tack as close to the wind as we could to build up speed, calling Ready about 20 feet from the seawall and yelling hardalee!! as we jammed the tiller hard leeward and switched sides, ducking the boom.

I’m not sure all that yelling was really necessary in the narrow bay, especially on a tiny Sunfish with a 2-person crew, but we had been taught that communication on the team was essential.  Besides, it brought our parents out on the porches of the little cottages and camps on Sawmill Bay, shaking their heads but smiling, remembering when they learned to sail.  Communication and trust are necessary in sailing, because the fastest way forward is always indirect.  Also, staying close to the wind, and tacking back and forth rather than aiming straight at your destination, takes communication and is hard to do without a team.

Indirect Path

Communication Mutual Trust TeamworkWe see this in our Old Testament reading from Joshua this morning.  As the Israelites celebrate their first Passover in the Promised Land, down low in the Jordan Valley near the Dead Sea, their path has been anything but direct and straight.  They’ve been slaves under Pharaoh in Egypt, wandered in the desert, and been in exile, adapting to new conditions as God directs — each new tack requiring communication, mutual trust, and teamwork.  Each of those experiences resulted from the work of helmsman and the crew — and their communication, trust, and teamwork.  God was alway with them, even when they went off course, and even in their suffering and their yearning, they were formed by the experience.  Finally, as God tells Joshua in our reading today, the Israelites have come into the Promised Land as a people — as a community.  God is a marvelous helmsman, and from that day forward the Israelites eat the produce of their land. 

Prodigal Son

Prodigal SonOur gospel story of the Prodigal son also shows us the need for trust, communication, and teamwork, and that the course to that destination is never straight.  It’s easy to get distracted with the peripheral noise in the story of the Prodigal son.  There’s a lot going on.  There’s the younger son who makes an unconscionably bold early claim on his father’s estate and then wastes it with prostitutes and dissolute living.  There’s the older, dutiful, rule-following son, who sours not when he is treated badly, but when his brother, who hasn’t followed all the rules, is treated well.  And there’s the father, who without a single question hands over half his estate to the son, even though that surely would have seriously devalued the total estate, making it difficult to support the father and the elder son on its produce.  And surely the father was also able to predict the disastrous outcome of an early estate settlement on his younger son. 

All that makes a great and lively story, but what is the insight God is offering us here?  Are these smaller plot lines of filial disrespect, ingratitude, poor business judgment, assumed favoritism, unwise personal risk-taking, and jealousy close-wind tacks in the grand zigzag toward balance, harmony, trust, and teamwork — where the father, both sons, and all the workers on the estate learn to thrive together?

Parable of Belonging

Parables open in new ways and reveal new insights every time we unwrap, unpack, and unfold them.  I wonder whether the common name of the Prodigal Son has kept us focused on the misbehavior and bad judgment of the younger son, who is welcomed home by his loving father despite his disrespectful request and wasteful ways.  Has that focus kept us from asking new questions about community in the parable?  We can forget to look back to the very first words of the parable:  

All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. 

And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, 

“This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Prodigal SonThe Pharisees and the scribes sound a lot like the older brother — the one who was always respectful and always followed the rules.  And the tax collectors and sinners sound like the younger brother, who asked his father for his inheritance while his father was still in the prime of life, then wasted that inheritance on dissolute living in another land, returning to his father’s mercy, only daring to hope for work as a hired hand.  

What if, instead of the Parable of the Prodigal Son — or the Parable of the Unsympathetic Brother — or even the Parable of the Doting and Forgiving Father, we called it the Parable of Belonging?  The path to community in the parable is not straight, but God does marvelous things.  As the parable tacks from the younger son’s folly to the older son’s jealousy, to the father’s unconditional love, things sort out, and community is formed.  Remember that as the elder son approaches from the fields, he hears music and dancing. And with the whole community dancing, celebrating, and thriving, we can imagine that the elder son’s jealously is soon soothed, and he joins in the fun.

We’ve been talking about haloes during Lent — those radiant crowns of our very best hopes and dreams for each other and our community.  On the first Sunday in Lent, we wrote on purple ribbons what keeps us from seeing our own and each other’s haloes — self-doubt, distraction, grief, fear, anger, traffic, and masks.  On the second Sunday in Lent, we wrote on gold ribbons the habits we can cultivate to help us see our own and each other’s haloes (some ideas were gentleness, curiosity, hospitality, asking for help, helping others, enough rest, remembering birthdays, and smiling).  Last Sunday, we wrote on rose ribbons the things we can do to show our haloes to the whole community — like Soup’s On, hydroponic gardening, making a gift to support our Ukrainian sisters and brothers, volunteering, voting, attending Emmanuel and community events and inviting a friend along.  

Emmanuel with ribbonsToday — Rose Sunday — we’ll write what we think might happen when we do show our haloes to the community.  We’ll use all sorts and colors of ribbons, because our community of Newport and Aquidneck Island is filled with all sorts and colors of people.  What happens when we show our haloes — our very best intentions — to the broader community?  I don’t know for sure, but I suspect we’ll start seeing haloes where we never knew to look for them.  Especially after our long COVIDtide, many are hungry for connection.  Human beings flourish in community where they have an opportunity to know — and be known — in community.  I expect we’ll hear music and dancing, and we’ll all be invited to join in the fun.  And God loves a big party.  

We’ll keep tying our ribbons to the fence as we explore how to help our whole community see our best intentions for each other, and how to pray, speak, and live those best intentions into being at Emmanuel.  After Palm Sunday, we’ll gather up the ribbons, wash and iron them, and weave them into an altar cloth to use in our worship, representing the way in which we — and our very best intentions for each other — are woven into the fabric of our community, where we all belong.  God has done marvelous things.  Amen


Your Favorite Brass Quintet plays Sunday, July 3 at 9:30 am on the lawn