Sunday, March 18, 2007
Teddy and Kermit - The Prodigals
The Prodigals:(Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32)
Lent IV – 03.18.07
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul
(the Rev’d) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor
I hate to admit it, but the Smothers Brothers are always the fist example that comes to mind whenever I hear this Gospel. Even if you are too young to remember the TV program, you no doubt have heard the younger Tommy saying to his older brother, Dickie, “Oh yeah, well, Mom always liked you best!”
Today’s gospel gives us Luke’s story of The Prodigal Son. It’s the third story in a trilogy of stories, including the Parable of the Lost Coin and the Parable of the Lost Sheep, all designed as a rebuttal to the accusation of the Pharisees who say of Jesus, “The man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” In each parable, but most specifically the story of the Prodigals, Luke’s theology of the all inclusive and unconditional love of God is clearly illustrated.
Being a Prodigal Son has come to mean “lost” but it actually means “wasteful.” I’ll have more to say about this distinction later. There’s something so entirely human about this story that anyone who has a sibling immediately recognizes the dynamic.
Although, I think even people who grew up as “the only child” may be able to have a grateful laugh whenever Tommy Smothers says, “Mom always liked you best!” Somehow we all understand sibling rivalry – even those of us who have never experienced it.
All that being said, on this Mothering Sunday, this Fourth Sunday in Lent or Refreshment Sunday, I’d like to focus on the relationship between the father and the sons. Some preachers have suggested that this story is more aptly titled, “The Prodigal Father.” Actually, I think it should just be “The Prodigals.”
I want to tell you a story – a modern parable, if you will – that I think illustrates this point. I first learned of it in a book by Candice Millard. It’s the story of Teddy Roosevelt. Actually, it’s the story of former President Teddy Roosevelt and his younger son Kermit and a trip they took in December of 1913 through the Brazilian Highlands to the Amazon Basin on the Rio da Duvida – The River of Doubt.
Teddy Roosevelt was a man larger than life, indeed, so much so that he is the only 20th Century President to have his face carved into Mt. Rushmore, along with Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln. He is quoted as saying, “I am always willing to pay the piper when I have a good dance; and every now and then I like to drink the wine of life spiked with brandy in it." These words pretty much summed up his attitude toward what he called the "strenuous life." It was a style of living he favored, both before and after serving two terms as president of the United States.
It was his third run for the Presidency, however, that almost proved too strenuous for him. In 1912, as a third-party candidate vying for a third term, he had split the Republican vote, putting a Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, in the White House for the first time in 16 years. After the election, Roosevelt found himself a pariah, ridiculed by his enemies and hated by many of his old Republican friends and backers. Hunkered down at Sagamore Hill, his secluded home in Oyster Bay, N.Y., he fought to stave off depression and despair.
So, when the invitation came to travel to Brazil, the opportunity proved irresistible. The trip appealed to him as a naturalist and would-be explorer. However, it also provided him with the chance to see his son, Kermit, who was living in Brazil. Father and son shared a love for adventure and nature, but they also shared a dark secret: a constant struggle with depression. Although his siblings called Kermit “the lucky one” because he always got to go on adventures with his father, it appeared this was so because Roosevelt feared that the fate of his younger son might be the same as his brother Elliott, whose brilliance and talent and life were lost to an addiction to drugs and alcohol.
The Brazilian journey was precisely the difficult adventure Roosevelt was longing for. Throughout his life, he had battled depression and loss by seeking out dangerous physical challenges and pushing himself to the limit of his endurance. This expedition was a chance to prove his strength and reclaim his sense of purpose. It was a chance for redemption after a humiliating political loss. What he didn’t know – couldn’t have known – was that the path to redemption on the River of Doubt was one that placed him face to face with his own prodigal nature – as well as that of his son.
The journey began with a month-long trek across the Brazilian Highlands in which they lost dozens of pack mules and oxen to starvation. They had to cut their provisions in half just to make the journey on the Rio da Duvida – which was thusly named because no one really knew where it began or ended. Ironically, it was Doubt which became their constant companion, which often beckoned Fear to travel with them.
Seven boats, hand made by and bought from local tribesmen, rode the river just inches above the water, which was infested with razor-toothed piranha, which often attacked the crew while in the boats. Mosquitoes brought life-threatening episodes of malaria. Swarms of bees, poisonous snakes and the humid heat of the Amazon Rain Forest all conspired to take their lives, one by one.
Millard writes: “By the time the expedition reached what appeared to be an impassable set of rapids – a series of six waterfalls, the last of which was more than 30 ft. high--Roosevelt was gravely ill, and his men were beaten down by exhaustion, hunger and fear. The only man among them who believed that they could get their dugouts through the rapids was Kermit. Having spent much of the past year building bridges, he was extremely skilled with ropes, a talent that had already saved the expedition countless times as it encountered series after series of rapids.”
Very few people knew that Roosevelt always carried a vial with a lethal dose of morphine. It was small enough to tuck into his leather satchel, or in a book, or tucked in his sock. “Boys,” he said, “I realize some of us are not going to finish this journey. You go on. I will stay here.” Doubt, it seemed, would claim the final victory in the life of this man who had fought off doubt all his life.
Kermit, however, was to have none of doubt. Sure of himself and his abilities, he was able to convince the others of his plan, and they quickly set about putting it into action. That was all that was needed to stay his father's hand. Millard writes, “Roosevelt understood that the best way to ensure Kermit's survival was not to spare him the burden of carrying his father but to give him the chance to do just that. To save his son, Roosevelt realized, he would have to let his son save him.”
That is a powerful modern parable of the Prodigals – of the prodigal father lost in doubt and the prodigal son filled with self-confidence and genius – ironically inspired, perhaps, by his father’s doubt. Both experienced a prodigal love for each other – the reckless, wasteful, extravagant love that is willing to take risks. It is a love that neither counts the cost nor demands repayment, but gives. It is a love that understands the mystery that is love, which is enough to inspire the courage to walk through the Highlands of Fear, navigate the River of Doubt, and deliver you to the Land of Redemption.
This is the extravagant, wasteful, reckless love we see in Luke’s gospel – the love of the Prodigal Son who squandered his fortune, but came home to find that same quality in the wealth of his Father’s love for him. It is the same love which God has for us, our prodigal God for God’s prodigal sons and daughters.
We are often foolish with that which God has so abundantly given us. Global warming has left no doubt that we have squandered our inheritance of this good earth. Foolish men begin dissolute wars which take innocent lives. The earth yields abundance for all, and yet some of God’s children live lives of unrelenting poverty, desperate hunger and debilitating disease. And yet, God continues to foolishly pour out abundance into our lives – filled with foolish hope that we might come to see our selfish ways.
Here is the secret I have learned, as a prodigal daughter of a prodigal God. It can be found in the ancient story of a prodigal father and his prodigal sons.It is a secret found deep in the Rain Forest of an adventure learned by a prodigal father and his prodigal son on the River of Doubt. It is this: I believe God’s needs us as much as we need God. Indeed, I think the extravagant gift of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus is evidence of the fact that God needs humankind for the redemption of the world which God created
Millard writes, “To save his son, Roosevelt realized, he would have to let his son save him.” This is the deep mystery of the prodigal nature of God’s love for us. I pray that the prodigal, extravagant, wasteful love of God will not be wasted on God's prodigal daughters and sons, so that, unlike the angry elder son, healing and reconciliation for the world may be found - and celebrated! Amen.