(This is a sermon I preached for First Congregational Church of Oakland on the parable of the Prodigal Son and my own journey toward ordination in the Roman Catholic Church. You can hear the recording here.)
When I was asked to preach at First Congo about my experience in the women’s ordination movement, the first thing I did (like any good Catholic) was turn to the lectionary to see what the gospel text for this week would be. And honestly, I was a little freaked out when I realized that the reading was on the Prodigal Son, possibly the least woman-centered reading in the Gospel of Luke.
This story begins with tax collectors and sinners gathered around Jesus, listening to his stories. The Pharisees, people who throughout their lives had done their best to follow religious laws, to follow the commandments, are baffled by Jesus spending time with these people who so clearly seem to be disobeying the faith they hold dear. “Look at this guy,” they said. “he welcomes sinners and eats with them!” In response, Jesus tells them this story about a young man trying to make amends for a moment of youthful arrogance, an extravagant feast his father throws to welcome him back, and his resentful older brother who is not quite yet ready to forgive.
This story has traditionally read as being about conversion. Like the sinners and tax collectors that the Pharisees judged Jesus for eating with, we are told that the younger son has come back to his father groveling and in need of redemption. In this reading of the story, the prodigal son, like the ‘sinners’ Jesus dines with, was wrong and needed to be fixed.
But there is another way to read this text, one that is less about the story of redemption and salvation writ large, and more about the salvation—and struggle—that is found in community. Orthodox Jew and New Testament Scholar Amy-Jill Levine, argues that the original listeners of this story would not have heard a story about a sinner in need of forgiveness and redemption. While modern Christian readers tend to read parables like the Prodigal Son as a metaphor for universal salvation, Levine argues that ancient Jewish listeners tended to hear parables in a much more practical way: as descriptions of everyday life said in new ways that could give us insight into problems experienced in this life.
Levine argues that these listeners (those sinners and tax collectors and Pharisees gathered around Jesus) would have heard a story about a family much like their own — with sibling rivalry and parents who don’t always know the best course of action. She argues that the parable shouldn’t be read as being about the sins of the prodigal son or the Christ-like forgiveness of the father, but as a story about a family struggling to create reconciliation among brokenness.
In this reading, it becomes clear that none of these characters are perfect. The petulant younger brother, the whiny older brother, or the father who allowed his teenage son to run off with an inheritance he was clearly too young to manage. In this parable, like in our own families and in our own churches, we encounter real humans—self-indulgent, whiny, flawed humans—who are struggling to find their place in community, to forgive one another, to learn what it means to be family.
This is a story about someone who leaves home, cuts off ties and pursues a life of independence and adventure, only to eventually discover that he’s not quite as wise as he thinks he is, and that independence isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. This is a story about what it means to belong to a community where people hurt us, abandon us, push us out. A story about what it means to return home and claim your place in family even when it’s difficult, even when you’ve been hurt.
I think we’ve all had experiences as prodigal children, people born into communities that don’t seem to quite fit, who leave home to find ourselves or to save ourselves and that then—sometimes—paradoxically, find our way back home.
My own story as a prodigal child is rooted in the Catholic Church—my first spiritual home and the community that I eventually decided to give my life to. I left the Catholic Church when I was 15. I left because I had been told that the Catholic Church was a club that had rules, and that I, as a queer person and as a woman called to ordination, wasn’t allowed in that club.
But what I found was that this love of my childhood faith never went away. In the decade I was gone I worshipped at many other wonderful faith communities, but they never really felt like home. Like the prodigal son, I found myself alone and lonely, with a hunger for the rituals, community and culture that was my first language.
Some time in my early 20’s, I started going to mass again. Sneaking off to the small midwest parish near my Indiana college and attending midnight mass under a disco ball on a cruise ship during a family vacation. I signed up for a summer internship with the Los Angeles Catholic Worker, where I spent my weeks serving lunch on Skid Row and my Sundays at a small parish in Boyle Heights. I no longer considered myself Catholic, and sometimes wasn’t even sure I was still Christian, but there was something about the liturgy and the shared meal that called to me, that I couldn’t quite give up. I was amazed by the idea that all these people: Indiana farmers, wealthy retirees on cruise ships, undocumented immigrants, anarchists could gather around the table and—together—become the Body of Christ. Become one family.
I came to understand that the Catholic Church—and I think the wider Christian community—isn’t a rule book at all. It’s a family, gathered around a shared table. A family just as maddening and dysfunctional as any other family– and with a bond that is just as unbreakable. This idea of the Church as Family is what made me finally return to the Catholic Church at age 25. It’s what made me follow my calling to ordination as a deacon and what is leading me toward eventually being ordained a priest.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with my ordaining body, Roman Catholic Woman Priests, we’re an organization of women and a few others who have been ordained validly according to Catholic tradition, but whose ordinations are considered illegal because of our gender. According to the Vatican, at the very same moment when my Bishop, Olivia Doko, laid hands on me and I became a deacon I was also officially excommunicated from the Catholic Church– cut out of the faith community that is my family by birth and by choice. Excommunication is the ultimate tool of people who see religion as being about rules and not about family, people who think that they have the authority to break the bonds created at at the communion table.
The day of my ordination, there was a news reporter there, covering the story. One of the first things she asked me after the ceremony was, “what does it feel like to be excommunicated?” I stuttered for a moment before I finally managed to say “you know, I’m not sure. I was so focused on the ordination that I totally forgot about the excommunication.”
During that beautiful ceremony, where so many people I love and people I had never even met had gathered to celebrate me and the two other women being ordained that day, I had felt so loved and recognized in my ministry that excommunication was the last thing on my mind. I had never felt more a part of the family of the Catholic Church than I did on that day.
At St. Hildegard’s, and at Roman Catholic Woman Priest-served parishes around the world, we’re struggling with what it means to be family, and not a clubhouse with a list of rules. Our communities tend to attract others who feel they’ve been pushed out of the institutional church for some reason, who have been called back into a community that doesn’t always seem to want them.
One beautiful way I’ve seen this play out is in the relationship between Dignity, a LGBT Catholic organization, and Roman Catholic Woman Priests. Many Dignity chapters throughout the country have weekly church services for queer folks who may not feel comfortable attending a traditional parish. Decades ago they were often able to get male Catholic priests to serve at those masses, but as the institutional Catholic Church has taken a sharper turn to the right in recent years, that’s been harder to do. As a result, some Dignity chapters have begun to reach out to Roman Catholic Woman Priests and asked them to lead liturgies. In the beginning, this was a stretch for both communities: for the mostly male members of Dignity who hadn’t really thought about (and were sometimes hostile to) women’s ordination, and to some of the women in Roman Catholic Women Priests– straight, older women who’d never really seen that many queer folks in a room together. Together, they’ve been able to build bridges, minister to each other and work to build faith communities modeled on Jesus’ image of the family dinner table.
When the Pharisees saw Jesus, they said “this fellow welcomes sinners and dines with them.” They wondered why Jesus would sit and eat with these people who so obviously weren’t following the rules, who weren’t doing religion right. Jesus heard their statement and responded by telling them a story, not about rules, but about family. A story about what it means to be called back into community with people you think are sinners and people that think you’re a sinner. What it means to sit and break bread with people you think you have nothing in common with, what it means to claim your place at the table. The story of the prodigal son is a response to all those that would try to make religion a club with a rule book, it’s a story about a family, and a dinner, and an opportunity to forgive.
My story and the home I’ve re-formed for myself in the Catholic Church– is my own. I’m keenly aware that many of you, too, might have come from faith communities where you were told you were less than, where you experienced violence and marginalization because of who you are, and how you show up in the world. I am not advocating that we should all return to those places that hurt us, that we are all under some obligation to come back and attempt to fix those places. I firmly believe that the calling to leave and find a new home is just as valid as the calling to stay, or return home. In the same way that we shouldn’t argue that people are obligated to remain in abusive biological families I think that we need to take care when talking about the choice to return to abusive religious families—and clearly state that the choice to leave is also ethical, and faithful, and courageous.
But wherever you find your people—in the church of your birth or in a new religious home, in your family of origin or your family of choice, you can’t escape this problem of community. The problem of difficult family members, of having felt hurt, of having hurt others. We’ve all at times felt like those sinners that people didn’t think Jesus should dine with. Maybe at times we’ve also been the Pharisees, wondering what that person was doing here, why she had the nerve to think she belonged if she couldn’t even follow the rules.
But we have been called, as faithful people, into a family where people misbehave. Where people hurt us. Where we hurt one another. And at those times when we feel hurt, or judged, or superior, Jesus asks us not to turn to the rule book but to the table, where an extravagant feast has been set for us, and where we are welcome to come and celebrate no matter how long we’ve been away. A family dinner table where we can sit together even in the moments when we don’t particularly like each other, and try to love each other.