March 10

A Prodigal Thought

By Marsh Chapel

Luke 15: 11

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Have you ever found yourself on the edge, verge or cusp of a new insight, or maybe even on the edge of a new life?

How much do you need (to acquire, to achieve, to conquer) before you are open to God? Open my eyes that I may see…

Maybe this winter morning, this Lenten hour, you too will have a prodigal thought, and you will come to your self.  Such an interesting phrase.  But when he came to himself…On coming into his true self…

There was a man who had two sons.  Notice all that is not here, before us today.  No incarnation.  No pedagogy.  No transfiguration.  No temptation.  No trial.  No passion. No crucifixion.  No resurrection.  Only a story about a man with two sons.  One who stays home.  And one who goes away.  Most of the listenership and most of the congregation today know this story, or at least have a vague lingering memory of some of it.  With the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son is the most famous of Jesus’ parables, and rightly so.  It is the account of the lavish love, the personal love, the uncritical love, the joyful love, the parental love, the patient love, the courageous love, the magnanimous love, the ecstatic love, the gracious love—the love of God. For you.  God loves you.  You are loved, so you can love.  Because God loves me, I too can risk love.

A Turn of Phrase

Prodigal means extremely—extremely something:  wasteful, generous or abundant.  The verb is (an Aorist participle):  and coming (in) to himself (a moment in time, a process in thought).  “For till then he was beside himself, as all men are, so long as they are without God in the world.’ (J Wesley).

But notice that the gospel, love, is hinged today on a single phrase.  After his travel and squandering, and before his return and reception, the prodigal has a thought, a prodigal thought at that.  All of the gospel this Lord’s Lenten day turns on a thought.  When he came to himself…When he thought to himself…

Three pulpits ago Professor Roland Wolseley endured this minister’s more youthful preaching.  Now deceased, Dr Wolseley was the preeminent scholar in the field of African American journalism.  Through his post at Syracuse University he almost singlehandedly created the discipline, through the publication of many books, the guidance of doctoral students, and a dogged, fierce love of his field, the struggling saintly newspapers and journals of the black community.  Roland went to Medill in Chicago, at Northwestern.  There, in his twenties he fell under the spell of my own greatest pulpit hero, Ernest Freemont Tittle, at Evanston First UMC, then the largest UMC in the country.  Tittle, a pacifist, as was Wolseley, gathered a group of graduate students for fellowship and reconciliation.  Wolseley met his wife, Bernice, there, and she went on to be for many years Tittle’s secretary.  You can read about Tittle in Robert Moats Miller’s older biography, or in Christopher Evans more recent monograph.

In those Syracuse years, Roland, a person of deep faith and quiet humor, would trace the work of Tittle in contrast and connection to what he was hearing.  Occasionally, too occasionally, he would say, leaving church, ‘Tittle would be proud  of that one’.   Another of those early 1940’s graduate student couples, it happened, awaited us when we moved to Rochester, where Ruth and Vernon Lippitt then lived.  These people, young in the forties, were mature the eighties and nineties, but had lost nothing of their early conviction, a combination of deep personal faith and active social involvement, found decades earlier, in the arm of a University congregation.  Marsh Chapel:  the seeds you plant today will flower and blossom and grow for decades, with telling affect.  Faint not, fear not, flag not!

Roland also kept us alive during administrative meetings, using punctuative humor.  Our trustees usually hired the same painter, a fine painter named Bogus, when the decay of the building outran their native parsimony.  When they couldn’t wait any longer to the paint a room, they made a motion to ‘hire Mr. Bogus’.  After the motion and second, with practiced timing, and with all knowing what was coming, yet unable not to laugh when it did—some things are just funny for no real reason—Dr. Wolseley would compliment the recent extravagance of the trustees in hiring Bogus, then add, speaking of Bogus, ‘Is the is guy for real?’  In eleven years I think I heard that question thirty times—‘Is Bogus for real’?—and yet it always made me smile.  After three hours of administrative board meeting, it doesn’t take much, that is true.

Roland was a careful listener.  He wanted the best for preaching and preacher, and, from Tittle, he knew the best, and he knew the rest.  Once the sermon including the phrase “I thought to myself”.  Afterward he asked sharply, ‘Why the redundancy?  Just say, ‘I thought’.’  He was probably thinking of William Strunk, ‘omit needless words’, a fence I have long since jumped, as you have the scars to attest.  But I took his advice.

Except, today, with love and real affection for Roland who is now in heaven, we wonder…When he came to himself.  There is something in that lingering middle voice construct in a language like ours that has no middle voice, only active and passive, but has lingering forms like this one.  The phrase shows the mind circling on itself,when he came to himself.   We do this in memory, come to ourselves.  We do this in discovery, come to ourselves.  We do this in prayer, come to ourselves.  Give some Lenten minutes to memory, discovery and prayer.  We do this in those moments when we realize there is more to life than meets the eye.  When he have a prodigal thought.  A new, wayward, slightly reckless, excessive, extravagant, prodigous thought.

Gnostic Thought

Now I put it to you:  how long has it been since you have had a prodigal thought?  The prodigal son is prodigally reckless in departure.  But he is prodigally excellent and ecstatic in return.  His negative prodigality in descent is eclipsed by his positive prodigality in resurrection.  How long has it been since you have come to yourself?

Though no one says so, and to my knowledge no one has yet so written, Luke 15 may be the most Gnostic of chapters in the New Testament.  It is about gnosis, self knowledge, coming to oneself. As the Gnostics taught, we are trapped in a far country, a long way from our true home, like a man who has squandered his birthright, and moved from light to darkness.  As the Gnostics taught, we are meant to get home, to get back home, to get back out from under this earthly, fleshly, pig slop bodily existence, and back to higher ground, to heaven, to the heaven beyond heaven, to the land of light, to the loving father, like a prodigal son returning to the home that is truly his.  As the Gnostics taught, there is just one way to get back home, one key to the magic door.  That way and that key is knowledge, self knowledge, the knowledge of one’s own self—whence w come, wither we go.  As the Gnostics taught, salvation comes from this sort of esoteric, personal, soulful knowledge.  When he came to himself…

It is jarring, I give you that, to admit that this most traditional and most popular and most orthodox of parables may well have grown up outside the barn, outside the fences of mainstream Christianity.  But there is nothing orthodox about the prodigal and his coming to himself.  His is truly a prodigal thought.  I need to get back home.  Back to the land of light.  Back to the pleroma.  Back to the God beyond God.  No ‘Christ died for our sins’, here.  No ‘lamb of God’, here.  No settled orthodox Christology here.  No cross, no gory glory, no Gethsemane, no passion of the Christ, here.  It all comes down to self awareness, to awakening, to a moment of clarity.  When he came to himself.The parable of the Prodigal Son is the most Gnostic, most heterodox, most Johannine of them all.  Stuck here in the middle of Luke, read here in the middle of Lent, interpreted here in the middle of March.

The Gospel challenges us to come out from hiding.

You cannot hide behind a distrust of organized religion today.  The prodigal thought soars beyond that.  You cannot hide behind a disdain for clergy, for formality, for robes and choirs and altars and candles.  This prodigal thought pierces all that.  You cannot behind the hideous moments in religious and Christian history—many there be—as a way to fend off the gospel, at least not this morning.  The knife cuts deeper, to the deeps, to your very soul.

You cannot hide on the left behind a critique of Catholicism today.  Prodigal thought soars beyond that.  You may reject the celibacy of the priesthood, the sacrifice of the mass, the subordination of women, and the infallibility of the pope.  But many, very many, Catholics do the same.  No, the gospel undercuts your smart but narrow critique, and asks about your soul.  You do have one you know.

I cannot hide on the right behind a critique of Calvinism today.  Prodigal thought soars beyond that.  I may reject Calvinist total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints.  Not all saints persevere, grace is resistible, atonement limitation is not divine, election has a human dimension, and depravity, well, it certainly is present, but not total.  But you know, many Calvinists, very many, would agree.  No, the gospel undercuts my own smart but narrow critique, and asks about my soul. I do have one, you know.

It asks whether you are coming to know yourself?  Are you?  This is the parable, oddly enough, that calls the seekers’ bluff.   Today the Gospel attacks where you have finally no ready defense.  It moves to your mind, your soul, your own most self.

Calvinist Interlocutor Lent 2013 M Robinson

As our Calvinist Lenten preaching partner this Lent, M Robinson, writes in The Death of Adam, and in Absence of Mind, prodigal thought is soul thought, and meant to change your life. She is a powerful voice today honoring the mind. A prodigal thought is a tussle between the mind and the world, the mind and the soul, the mind and itself.  Give her voice some space in your mind:

It all comes down to the mystery of the relationship between the mind and the cosmos. 3…

Consider…The deeply pensive solitudes that bring individuals into congregations and communities to be nurtured by the thought and culture they find there 9…The mind as felt experience…

We suffer today the exclusion of the felt life of the mind 35…A central tenet of the modern world view is that we do not know our own minds, motives or desires 59

The mind is an illusion according to modern theory… The renunciation of religion in the name of reason and progress has been strongly associated with a curtailment of the assumed capacities of the mind… 75

Yet we have… A singular capacity for wonder as well as for comprehension 72…

For the religious, the sense of the soul may have as a final redoubt, not as argument but as experience, that haunting I who wakes us in the night wondering where time has gone, the I we waken to, sharply aware that we have been unfaithful to ourselves, that a life lived otherwise would have acknowledged a yearning more our own than any of the daylit motives whose behests we answer to so diligently

Soul is…a name for an aspect of deep experience  116… The self that stands apart from itself, that questions, reconsiders, appraises. 119…


How does your soul fare?  Are you open to the challenge of a prodigal thought—in memory, in discovery, in prayer?

When He Came to Himself in Memory


In my fifties I have come to myself, at least in one sense.  I realize I now have time for opportunities I no longer have.  Once I had opportunity but no time.  Now I have time but no opportunity. I walked on the Charles River the other wind swept day, along the northern bank, along Memorial Drive.  The wind blew hard and cold.  Now seven years into a delightful deanship, with things rolling, no tenure to earn, ten books out, 1000 sermons written and delivered, and so on, I have the real mental and spiritual freedom easily to converse with my dad.  But he is dead.  Now that I have time I don’t have him.  When I had him I didn’t have time.  Now I have the time.  Stepping along the river bank, in the heart of the city of Boston he so loved, across the river from the University he so loved, thinking of him whom I so loved, I came to myself.  And what would I not give for another conversation with him?  You know this in your own experience.  I am driven to memory, and saved by memory.


When He Came To Himself in Discovery

Our son is a thirty five year old lawyer in Albany, NY.   He wrote a letter to the editor of the paper there, about a man in his church who had died:

“The front page article ‘Religion? More reply ‘none’”, Oct 21, about the decline in our community, particularly in my demographic, forced me to think about why I still go to church, despite its flaws.  As I continued through the paper, I found my answer in the obituaries.

“I met Dr. Wesley Bradley at Trinity UMC about five years ago.  I was immediately drawn to him—to the earnestness of his handshake, to the comforting advice he offered me as a new dad, to the way he proudly strolled down Lark Street with his lovely bride as if it were their first date

“Although I did not know the extent of Dr. Bradley’s professional accomplishments until I read his obituary, I knew the greatness of his grace.  I witnessed the faith that had sustained him and I learned from his humble and caring example.


“The church provides a time and place for God’s grace to touch and connect us.  But for church I would not have known Dr. Bradley.  My soul, which now grieves his passing, would have remained unaffected.


“I go to church to feed my soul.  It’s not the only way to do it, but I think Dr. Bradley’s life of faith is worth my generation’s consideration.”


When He Came To Himself in Prayer


We stood with 500 eighteen year olds gathered Thursday evening past, in the wake of the death of our 18 year old student.  For many, in their teens, a first harsh encounter with death.  In a secular gathering they offered a secular prayer.  Some came to themselves that evening, thinking:


“We mean to be thoughtful, and to be together in our thoughtfulness.

We are not alone in our thoughts.  We have each other to lean on.

We will lean on our friends,  those with whom we can share a hug.

We will lean on our groups, classes, dorm and hallway neighbofrs, those who know our names and call us by name.

We will lean on our own traditions of memory and hope, so significant, now, those words and events and stories that place all experience in ultimate perspective.

We will lean on our religious traditions, wherein we sing and kneel.

We will lean on our faith, that dimension of life that is deepest and truest to our own most self, our soul, the dimension of deep experience.

We will lean on some snippets and memories of words and phrases—goodness and mercy will follow me, let us love one another, love is God, let us watch over one another in love.

We may be moved to wonder again, at life, the meaning of life, the boundaries of life, and our own choices and actions and words therein.

We will be thoughtful and we are not alone in our thoughts.”


Memory. Discovery. Prayer. What will it take for you?  How much more do you need (to acquire, to achieve, to conquer) before you are open to God?  God is patient.  He waits.  Like a dad who has time when his son does not.  He waits.  He waits at home, hoping for little dust rising on the trail a long way off, sign of a boy coming home.  He waits at home, knowing the pig husks we can mistake for real food.  He waits at home, having already given more than enough in inheritance.  He waits at home, awaiting that moment that may come—today?—in a far country, in a rough circumstance, in an unwelcoming place.  That moment of prodigal thought….But when he came to himself…My life flows on in endless song…

~The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel


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