Daniel P. Strandlund
St. John’s Episcopal Church
Lent 4C, March 6, 2016
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
Our Native Tongue
¦the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property¦. (Luke 15:13)
A few years ago, there was a Supreme Court case called Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission. In it, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporations and unions have the same political speech rights as individuals under the First Amendment (https://www.cga.ct.gov/2010/rpt/2010-R-0124.htm). Basically, the Supreme Court ruled that money is a kind of speech protected under the first amendment.
Whether or not we agree with the Supreme Court’s decision, the court’s ruling chimes with our practical experience: money talks. This is a fact of our society we emphasize and perpetuate, whether we realize it or not. The exchange of money is a kind of language, an increasingly global vernacular we must learn to speak. I want to tell three stories about how I have experienced this to be true.
The first story is from the fall of 2008. I raised a few thousand dollars and went to live in a village in Uganda to volunteer with a small non-profit organization for a little over three months. I spent the majority of my time in villages and little towns, hours away from the capital. Because I and the other volunteers were so far away from major towns and urban centers, we Westerners were something of a novelty. If I went for a walk through a village, I was immediately a celebrity. This was kind of fun at first. But after I had been there a little while, I began to notice that because I was a white person from the United States, I was treated differently. I was a mzungu, and every cab driver or shopkeeper in the towns and villages where I worked knew that mzungus have money. More than once a cab driver pulled a Ugandan out of the back of his car and offered me the seat instead. Sometimes in shops the owner would leave whatever customer he or she was talking to and come speak to me. When I took some women from the village to an HIV clinic, we were immediately ushered to the front of the line. Most shocking to me, however, was church. I was in a predominantly Roman Catholic area. There’s a big feast day there celebrating some Catholic martyrs who were killed by invading militants decades previously, and during the big feast day mass celebration some young guys I had gotten to be friends with walked me to the front section of pews. They were insistent that I take communion. The fact that I had not been to confession didn’t seem to matter. Nor did it matter that I’m not a Roman Catholic.
I protested all of these signs of favoritism, but each time I was met with a cheerful insistence that it was perfectly fine, that I should move to the front of the line. Now, I am sure that the post-colonial dynamics of all of that are more complicated than I realize. I am also sure that some of the privileges shown me were nothing more than genuine African hospitality to outsiders. But I am also certain that I was treated with such favoritism at least partially because I was so wealthy. At the time I was in Uganda, one American dollar was worth 1,600 Ugandan shillings. In Uganda, I was literally a millionaire. Money talks, and I spoke the language very, very well.
The second story is from 2009, right after I got back home. I had spent all the money I had on the projects we were doing in Uganda, and then I put a few hundred more dollars on my credit card to bring home Christmas presents for friends and family members. When I got back to the States, I was broke and had no job. I lived on my sister’s couch for a few months. I worked odd jobs here and there and was able to scrape enough money together for health insurance every month, but I relied on my family members and friends for everything else: groceries, transportation, shelter, everything.
I had never been broke before, not like that. I had a car but no money to put gas in it. I had a place to sleep but it wasn’t mine. I had a lot of time on my hands, so I’d go for these long walks through Birmingham, and I began to notice something. If you are in an American city and you have no money, you are an alien. A stranger in a strange land. Think about it: you have no disposable income whatsoever. So you read these signs that say things like Publix or Firehouse Subs or Barnes and Noble, but when you read them, all you hear is, You don’t belong here, You don’t belong here, You don’t belong here. It makes sense, doesn’t it? Paying customers only.
Money talks, but I when I got back from Uganda I was no longer able to speak. I was a millionaire in Uganda, but a bum in my own backyard.
The third story is not one of mine but one I heard from somebody I met recently. I’ll call him Max. Until a few weeks ago, Max had been in prison for the past fifteen years. He didn’t give me the details as to why, but reading between the lines leads me to think that there was violence involved. He’s out on parole and trying to get on with his life.
He’s recently started working out in East Chase. Until he went to prison, Max said he had never been out of Montgomery. When Max said he had never been outside of Montgomery, he meant that he had never been as far as East Chase. He doesn’t know the neighborhood out there, and after fifteen years away, he’s having to learn bus schedules and all that on top of re-entering society and everything else. His first day of work went fine, but on the way home his bus was late. He walked down the street to try and find a phone to call his mom, and either the bus came and went while he was away from the stop, or it never came at all. Max wasn’t sure what to do so he walked to a Wendy’s. He sat at a table for a while, but he got nervous that someone would ask him to leave or tell him he couldn’t be there. He had fifteen dollars in his pocket. He bought a frosty so he would be a paying customer, and they couldn’t ask him to leave. A while later he bought some fries and a coke, so that he could keep staying as a customer. He asked to use the phone. He made it home, eventually. But Max was at Wendy’s for a little over three hours, periodically spending what little money he had so he could remain. He was scared. He didn’t know the neighborhood, he didn’t know which direction home was, he didn’t know if another bus was coming, or when. He knew that he had fifteen dollars in his pocket, and that you can be in a place like Wendy’s if you have fifteen dollars. He was never more than maybe 10 or 12 miles from home that day. But without a cell phone and without a car, trying to make it 10 or 12 miles across Montgomery to get back to your mom’s house is not a lot different than trying to get home from Uganda.
Money talks. Max didn’t know a lot of words, but he used the ones he had.
It was hearing Max’s story that reminded me of my own experience in Uganda and being back in the United States without any cash. When Max told me about how at Wendy’s he bought a milkshake so they wouldn’t ask him to leave, I knew what he meant. I remembered walking up and down the streets of Birmingham feeling like I didn’t belong anywhere. Until I experienced it myself, I had never thought about it before: there are a lot of places we are allowed to go only because we can pay to be there. Money is a global vernacular: it opens doors, it speeds things up, it gets us home in time for the series finale of Downton Abbey.
But without money, even the city we grew up in becomes foreign to us. Things don’t work right. The shopping center a few exits down I-85 becomes a foreign and exotic place. The world becomes big and intimidating again, and it seems indifferent to our presence. We no longer speak the language.
This is what the Prodigal Son experiences in Jesus’ parable from Luke. He takes his share of his father’s wealth and goes into a distant country. So long as the money lasts, he lives like a king, a mzungu at the front of the line. Doors open for him; things move as he wants them to move; he is a king at home in the world. But then the money runs out, famine strikes, and suddenly this distant country becomes foreign to him. He no longer speaks a language the people around him can understand”so he’s forced to feed the pigs, the most menial of jobs available.
Hunger sets in. Helplessness. He wants to go home. He knows that the frosty he bought, the fries, the coke”they’re temporary. Strange food in a strange land. How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare? he asks (Luke 15:17). When the prodigal son’s money runs out, his vanity and ego go with it. That distant country is revealed to be what it is: an alien land, anywhere but home.
A few weeks ago our Gospel passage was about Jesus in the wilderness being tempted by Satan. I was preaching that day. I said some things about wilderness, and what being in the wilderness can mean. One of the things I said was this: the wilderness is where sins go to die. Today’s story is about that. The prodigal son goes to a distant country. He spends his money and has a genuine wild rumpus, but when the money runs out, the distant country becomes a wilderness. As he experiences the pangs of physical hunger, his sins starve to death. They shrivel up like husks, are devoured by pigs. His sudden and terrible need is the realest experience he’s had in a long, long time. It’s painful, but it’s real.
A lot of times when we think of sin, we think of a volitional act by which we inflict some kind of harm. That’s certainly true of some kinds of sin. But by and large, the majority of our sins are habitual. They’re like stalactites growing from the roof of a cave”drop by drop, the minerals accrue slowly, growing longer and sharper, adding teeth to the cave’s mouth. Yet we never notice them growing because they do so gradually. Pretty soon those stalactites close off the exit and form another wall, and we forget that there was ever an outside world to begin with. We begin to think our prison is how it’s always been or how it has to be.
The prodigal son’s hunger in the distant country shocks him back to himself. It’s like a crack in the cave wall lets some starlight in. Sin begins to die when we are able to call it what it is”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’ (Luke 15:18-19).
All three of the stories I told are about money. I bring all this money stuff up because we’re a parish with resources. This means that our habitual sins just aren’t the same ones to which a smaller parish might be prone. (Small parishes have their own sinister cave formations.) For example, a parish like ours is prone to thinking that if we put enough money towards a program or an event, it will somehow magically be a Spirit-filled success. That’s just not true: there’s no substitute for people showing up and loving each other. Another example: a parish like ours is used to being asked for money for things; but if we’re not careful, we start believing that’s all we have to offer. A third example: because we’re a parish with resources, some of us think there’s really no need for us to pledge. Or, we think that, since our pledge would only amount to $50 a month, there’s really no use in our making one because it’s not as significant as other people’s pledges.
Notice what’s happening there: in all three of these examples, the money is talking. Sure, to have good programming, we have to put financial resources towards it. And sure, a wealthy parish should expect to be open-handed with our surrounding community. And sure, a $50 a month pledge isn’t going to make or break the power bill. But just because money talks doesn’t mean that money is our mother tongue. Part of the prodigal son’s sin is that he thinks his Father won’t welcome him home again. He can’t accept his relationship with his Father as it truly is: treat me like a hired hand. He’s thinking transactionally. But notice that this is also the sin of the older son: he complains that he has been working like a slave for his father and has never been given so much as a young goat. Each of them is assuming that their place at their Father’s table is essentially transactional. One says I have not earned my place here; the other thinks he has a place because he’s earned it. They’re still speaking a foreign language. The right use of resources is part of how we belong to a community of faith; it’s not why we belong. Nor does it secure our belonging.
As Christians, our mother tongue is forgiveness, compassion, celebration, speaking the truth. We are children of a Father who says, Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours (Luke 15:31). The heartbeat of this parable is the Father. All that is the Father’s is ours. So what is the Father’s? Just from Jesus’ parable, we can say that forgiveness, compassion, joy, and real honesty”these are the Father’s characteristics. These are the virtues we are called to practice. Forgiveness, compassion, joy, honesty”this is our native vocabulary. May those words be spoken here. May we turn from our distant countries and welcome each other home.