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Sunday, March 18, 2007

Teddy and Kermit - The Prodigals

The Prodigals:(Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32)
“Mothering/Refreshment Sunday”
Lent IV – 03.18.07
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul
Chatham, NJ
(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.


Hiram said...

A very interesting talk. I can appreciate the Roosevelts' relationship and love for each other. I had never heard of this expedtion before.

You had me with you up to here: "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."

I think that the prodigal love of God is shown precisely because he does NOT need us in the least -- but he still takes the step of sending his Son to redeem us from sin and death.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Right, Hiram,

You are certainly entitled to that theological perspective.

People of no less a stature than Mother Teresa of Calcutta held the theological position that God needs us - needs our hands to feed those who are hungry in the world.

So did Desmond Tutu, and so many others, it's hard to number them all.

The point is that this is my sermon, which is my responsibility to faithfully tell the gospel story in the context of my theology - not yours.

You preach your sermon and I'll preach mine. And, this is a sermon, Hiram, not an "interesting talk" - albeit a "very" interesting one.

This may come as a shock to you, but neither my seminarian nor I nor anyone who preaches in the pulpit of St. Paul's Church write our sermons for your ears.

I know. I know. Imagine that.

The world does not revolve around you. At least, you are not at the center of my world. Jesus is, which I experience in the hearts and minds and souls of the people of St. Paul's Chatham, who are the Sacred Body of Christ.

I, and my seminarians and whoever I allow to preach in the pulpit under my cure and care, write our sermons the way St. Paul did, and the way the evangelists wrote the gospels - for our particular communities in our particular time.

You are certainly welcome to your differences in how we envision God and God's relationship with us through Christ Jesus.

And, you are certainly encouraged to share them here.

But, I will not print any more of your comments which contain snide, snarky remarks or not-so-suble putdowns.

I hope I make myself clear.

Bill said...

I disagree with Hiram. God does need us. Let me see if I can explain my thinking without getting too convoluted or strangled in my own words. God created us in her image. Not in the physical image, I don’t believe that but in the spiritual image. In how we think, how our minds work. The second part of this is that God is love. God is the pure essence of love. If this were not so, He would have destroyed us years ago and started over. Think about yourself, if you share love, you come to expect some of that love in return. That’s the way love works. God gives us her love and needs us to return that love. God created perfect creatures with free will. We are those perfect creatures. The free will part of it sometimes causes problems. (I.E. Adam & Eve). But God comes back to us again and again. By returning God’s love, we come back to being the perfect creatures She created.
We think this way because God thinks this way. How do I know this? Again, because we are created in Her image. We are an extension of the thought of God. We represent God on earth and God’s love on earth. We strive to please God. Why would this be so if God didn’t put that way of thinking into our minds. We are part of God. We think the way we do because She thinks that way. So yes, God needs us. Of that I have no doubt.

Hiram said...

Thank you for letting me post on “Telling Secrets” fairly often.

I guess the next time I say something like “a very interesting talk,” I should add a little (t.i.c.) after it for “tongue in cheek.”

Of course you speak to your congregation, as I set my sermons up to speak to mine, addressing things in their lives that will often be different than what your congregation faces, at least to some degree. I know that when I was in a posh suburb in Somerset County, NJ, I addressed different concerns and different problems than I do in my blue collar parish in New England.

And of course, when you preach, you certainly do not have me in mind – why would you? But when you post something on an accessible blog, you put it there for all readers.

I have had the privilege of hearing the Rev John Stott preach on quite a few occassions, more than many people who do not “cross the pond.” He is my ideal as a preacher – he brings out the meaning of the text in its context, addresses it to our context, and gives ways in which to apply it. There are certainly other ways to preach that are effective, and yours is one of them.

My aim in preaching is to give people tools by which they can grow closer to God, know him better, and follow him more effectively. I concentrate on the relationship with God, rather than on a particular movement in society or the church – because if people have a living relationship with the Lord Jesus, they can then hear his direction to them, and act accrodingly – whereas if I seek to preach only a particular course of action, all I have done it persuade them to do something without learning how to learn from God. (In saying this, I am simply giving my philosophy of preaching – not trying to say something about you or your seminarians’ preaching. I have seen both liberals and conservatives seek to persuade people to a particular course of action as the main thrust of their ministry; my reservation is not one of theological perspectives.)

Now, as for God needing us: There are two senses in which it might be said that God needs us. One is that he has delegated responsibilities to us, and will not do for us what he has delegated to us. He told us to love our neighbor, and he means that there are things that we can do to do so – and he needs us to do those things because he has told us that it is our responsibility. I have not read much of Mother Teresa, but I am guessing that she meant something along the lines of a saying attributed to St Augustine: “Without God, I can’t; without me, God won’t.” God needs us because he has delegated some things to us.

The other sense of God needing us is that he is utterly incapable of doing some things, and he needs us to do what he cannot do. This would be a God who sits around watching anxiously and wringing his hands, hoping that we will do what he needs us to do.

It is the second sense of God needing us that I cannot buy. It has no connection to the biblical picture of the God who created the earth and who is King of Kings and Lord of Lords. If Christianity is indeed true, and if the Bible is a source of knowledge about God (not necessarily inerrant, simply basically reliable), then God is not a powerless God. We cannot hold him hostage by refusing to do what he has commanded us to do. God does not need us. And that is why we know is love is beyond measure – for he loves us and seeks our best even though he could have enjoyed all eternity simply in the fellowship of the Trinity. He did not need to create us, and he did not need to redeem us – but he loved us so much that he did.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks for your clarification about "talk." My experience is that when most people say that, it is a polite put down. When a known conservative says that, it's never, ever "tongue in cheek."

I'm glad to know you are an exception. I'll keep that in mind.

I don't think I gave you any reason to believe that my theology what you state was the second position of God's needing us.

I don't believe in a wimpy God (I mean, why bother? We've got lots of wimpy people.)

Neither do I believe in an "awesome" God, the way the Young Evangelicals sing of God.

(I always wince when my youth group requests "Our God is an Awesome God" and "Shine, Jesus, Shine" for their twice a year Youth Service. But then, I remember that they are adolescents and that song is about right for that level of spiritual maturity.)

God is powerful AND God needs us.

Pretty Anglican - at least, in what I've always understood that to mean before the term got hijacked by the Campus Crusade crowd which has recently injected themselves into our community.

And, even though we ought not hold God hostage, we often do - to our peril and God's great disappointment.

Mary could have said "No" to the Incarnation. No doubt, countless others did before her. She didn't and that, of course, made all the difference for salvation history.

I have read many of Stott's sermons, listened to a few of them on tape, and actually heard him once when I was in London.

Funny. I had a completely different reaction. Despite the fact that his image of God and understanding of Jesus is so radically different from mine, I think he's as boring as plain, white unbuttered toast.

Different strokes, and all that.

Bill said...

Hiram, aside from the fact that this is all conjecture and makes for interesting discourse, why are we still beating this dead horse? In the end, nobody knows the mind of God. You either believe that God needs us or you don’t. All we can do is look at the evidence. Since we are still here, I believe She does need us. Needs us to return that love that She has given us. It completes the circle. If nothing exists save for the thought which is God and then She decides to create the heavens and man and everything else, why? She could have stopped at the cosmos, the planets, maybe even a few rabbits, but why people, why sentient beings. Because stars and planets and even rabbits can’t give back love. Only a sentient, thinking creature can give love. And please don’t tell me that your dog loves you. I’m talking about a creature that can look out at all that God has provided and stand in total appreciation of all that beauty. Stand there and return that love for which he/she was created. That is what God needs. If she didn’t the earth would be populated with rabbits.