Prodigal Love

Rev. Sarah Buteux
Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 10, 2013
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32



Twelve days ago, utterly worn out from 20 plus hours of travel by plane, train, automobile, and foot, I dropped my backpack down next to a bunk bed in the little town of St Jean Pied du Port, somewhere on the border between France and Spain, popped two ear plugs in my ears, wrapped a bandana around my eyes, and fell asleep in a fully lit room full of complete strangers.  


Somewhere in the back of my mind there was the niggling thought that maybe, just maybe, this wasn’t the wisest idea. But fatigue won out over caution, and I was soon set adrift dreaming about the tall snowy mountains I would be climbing the very next day as I began my pilgrimage upon the Camino de Santiago de Compostela.   


I awoke, as most pilgrims do, in the wee hours of the morning, and wriggled out of my sleeping bag in search of a bathroom. By that point the hostel was full of sleeping, snoring, rustling pilgrims, and as I made my way past them I felt something I hadn’t quite expected to feel…  




I mean, I didn’t even know any of these people yet. At breakfast the next morning I would learn that they came from all over the world: England, Ireland, Australia, Korea, Hungary, even Albany (N.Y. that is).  


But at that moment, in that dimly lit room, watching thirty or so men and women all trying to sleep before embarking on the most archaic journey one can imagine, my heart expanded to include them all.  


I knew at that moment that I would do anything for these people and was filled with the assurance that they in turn would do anything for me.  


A few hours later the woman who ran the hostel called us all to wake up and join her for breakfast.  In her arms, piled like logs for the fire, she held a dozen crusty baguettes still warm from the bakery. We sat down around her table to bowls of coffee, tea, and cocoa, and slathered butter and jam onto our bread as we got to know one another.  


I asked her in very bad French if we could repay her in some way for the beautiful breakfast, and she said, “non” and pointed to the scallop shell I had tied to my backpack to mark myself as a pilgrim.  


Andrea Ayvazian (pastor of the Haydenville Church), Caroline Meyers (pastor of South Church) and I (pastor of…well you know) had each dropped a small donation in a box the night before in exchange for our shells and she told us that she used that money to make sure every pilgrim, be they rich or poor, started off on the Camino with a good breakfast.  


It was a sign, the first of many, of grace… grace unbidden, grace undeserved, a grace that saturated every moment of my time in Spain. We thanked her and then, after one last trip to the W.C., as I waited for my friends to gather their things, I stepped out into the cold morning fog and ran right into Joe.  


All the other pilgrims were already headed off, but Joe was hanging back, looking a little bit lost.  


Joe was a gaunt 50 something, about my height, with a salt and pepper beard, piercing blue eyes, and a crocheted hat featuring a union jack with a mohawk of red, white, and blue yarn protruding from the top of his head.  


He looked like a cross between Van Gough, Sid Vicious, and a little lost puppy - which worked for me - so I asked him if he wanted to walk with us.  


“That would be great,” he said.  


“We’re going to pray before we walk,” I warned him.  


“That would be great,” he said.  


“And, um, we’re also going to sing.”  


“That would be great,” he said.  


“Because we’re all ministers,” I said, wanting him to know exactly what he was getting himself into.  


And Joe was cool with that, so he followed us up over the bridge to the outskirts of St. Jean. As we walked he told us that he’d actually been in that hostel for two nights, wondering what the heck he was doing there.  


He had been ready to pack it all in and go home before he even started and had prayed that God would help him, send him a sign, send him someone with whom to walk.   


Well, we drew Joe into our prayer circle, took out a stone that had been blessed by Andrea’s congregation, and placed all our hands upon it as we prayed, like we said we would, and then sang as we had planned:  


Courage Sister, you do not walk alone,  

 I will walk with you, and sing your spirit home  


And then with our hands upon Joe, tears streaming down every face, we sang:  


Courage Brother, you do not walk alone,  

 I will walk with you, and sing your spirit home  


…and Joe, who we’d known for less than 15 minutes, was now our brother.  


Not for the day. Not for the week. Joe’s my brother forever.  


That is how it is on the Camino. Who you are in “real life” has very little to do with who you are when you’re on The Way, which is what camino means.  


As we hiked over the mountains and slid down hillsides, shared wine and broke bread at communal meals, or waited in line for the one bathroom and two showers we would all be sharing for the night, it didn’t matter what you did for a living, where you’d come from, how old you were, or even why you had chosen to walk.  


All that mattered was that we were on the same path as pilgrims…all pilgrims…just pilgrims…and as pilgrims we were now all part of the same family.


You see, when you’re on the Camino no one cares if you’re a doctor or a lawyer, a teacher or a tourist, Catholic or Protestant, spiritual or religious, rich or poor, good or bad.  


And I mean that last bit when I say it, because not everyone who walks this path is “good.” Pilgrims are not all devout, religious people in search of God or some sort of spiritual experience. A lot of people walk the Camino as a form of penance, seeking forgiveness for offenses that would break your heart if you heard them.  


In fact there are, as there have been since the beginning, still programs in Spain where you can walk the Camino in lieu of a prison sentence because it’s that hard and it builds character. I don’t know that I met anyone on that sort of furlough but I also don’t know that I would know if I had, because when you’re on The Way it simply doesn’t matter.  


All that matters is that you’re a pilgrim…a pilgrim who would do anything for any other pilgrim, share anything, provide anything… and that the people around you feel the same.  


In Pamplona, 5 days into our walk, we hobbled past a tour group and the guide halted and pointed to us.  


“These are Peregrinos,” he told them, “They look happy now,” he said as he smiled at us, “but in a few weeks they won’t look so good. The Camino is hard,” he explained, “but in our culture we take care of pilgrims. If you see a pilgrim in need you help them. If they are hungry you feed them, thirsty you give them something to drink. If they are hurt you help, tired, then you offer them a place to sleep.”   


Now his words might sound sweet, even a little sentimental, but they are also true; extraordinarily true.  Extraordinary because when you’re out there on the way you are essentially homeless.   


It may be by choice, but the results and complications are all the same. You carry everything you own on your back. You have, maybe, one change of clothes; clothes that are dry hopefully but probably not clean. You don’t know where your next meal, bathroom, or bed will be. 


You shower irregularly if you shower at all. And you spend all day walking and sweating and slogging through mud; serious mud. I’m telling you, the mud on the Camino is legendary. We ran into a lot of it in winter so I can only imagine what it’s like at other times of year.  


What this means, though, (what it is I really want you to understand) is that the pilgrims people in Spain are so ready to help -more often than not – are dirty, smelly, exhausted foreigners; people who rarely speak their language, may or may not have money to spare, and yet are desperately in need of a cold drink, a hot meal, and a warm bed.  


There are thousands of us making our way past them at any given time of year; pilgrims plodding along like a plague of muddy, zombie locusts.  


They have no idea where we’ve come from, only some idea of why we are there, and yet they helped us anyway, everywhere we went. They opened their doors, they let us use their bathrooms, they helped us find our way back to the path when we got lost and were just standing there looking confused in their backyards.  


But what touched me most was how over and over again, in spite of our appearance and all the inconvenience we caused, how they blessed us.  From cars, from windows, while walking on the road: all the people we passed would wave, smile, and wish us a Buen Camino… a good Camino… not because we deserved it or had earned it but simply because we were on it; pilgrims on the way to Santiago, pilgrims so very far from home.  


Well some 2000 years ago Jesus sat down and broke bread with a bunch of people who probably looked and smelled a lot like I did a week ago in Pamplona, people you wouldn’t want to sit too close to if you could help it, the sort of people good respectable sorts wouldn’t sit next to at all.  


Some of these folks were tax collectors. All of them were sinners. Only these were the sorts of sinners who sinned in a way the rest of us can see which somehow made their sins just that much worse. And when the scribes and the Pharisees saw these folks sitting around Jesus they were pretty seriously put off. 



The scribes and Pharisees were good men after all: smart, literate, intentional. They knew Jesus was special. They knew he had a lot to teach, a lot to give, a lot he could accomplish if he played his cards right, and yet here he was compromising all the good he had to offer by associating with all the wrong sorts of people.  


Jesus’ behavior was inappropriate, his company indiscriminate. If he was so wise then he should have been more discerning. If he was so good then he should have held himself and these others up to a higher standard.  


“This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them,” they grumbled.  


And upon hearing this Jesus told them a story.  


“There was a man,” he began, and it’s right there that I want to stop.  


“There was a man...”  


I want to stop there because we so often read this as a story about a man with two sons: the one who ran off and the one who stayed put, the one who was humbled and the one who was proud, the one who was forgiven and the one who was righteous … and it is a story about all those things, but at it’s heart isn’t this really a story about the man himself; a story about the father who loved both his sons in spite of the fact that neither one of them deserved his love at all?  


I mean the younger was a scoundrel; the older, a self-righteous jerk.  


Neither son showed love or respect toward their father, and yet he loved them both completely, utterly, unconditionally, loved them to a fault.  


“Everything I have is yours,” he said. Always has been. Always will be.  


“Everything I have is yours,” he said, even after all they put him through.  


“Everything I have is yours.”  


Not because they had earned it or deserved it but simply because it was his good pleasure to give it.  


“Everything I have is yours.”  


Enough and to spare.  




“Everything I have….it’s yours.”  




The Scribes and Pharisees were upset with Jesus, just as the older brother was upset with the Father, just as we sometimes get upset with each other, for giving too much: too much time and attention, too much love and respect, too much of ourselves to the all the wrong people.  


But what if Jesus told us a story about this man in order to help us see that there is no such thing?  


Ultimately that is.  


No good or bad, holy or unholy, deserving or undeserving…people… at least not in the mind of the Father… at least not in the mind of God?  


What if, in the end, we’re all just people: his people, each screwed up in our own way and yet still his children, nothing more than pilgrims, just pilgrims, all pilgrims trying to find our way home?  


Children the Father longs to love in such a way that we can then turn and love one another with the same lack of judgment, the same generosity of spirit, the same prodigal love; a love that doesn’t count the cost or keep score, but just gives and gives and gives again what God hath given thee?  


On the Camino I caught a glimpse of a world like that, a world beyond right and wrong; a world where there is no fair, there’s just love: the love of God that falls upon each of us, reaches out to hold us, and runs out to meet us in every moment of every day. A love we shared freely with one another, a love that made us family, a love that brought us home.


“Everything I have is yours.”  




Thanks be to God.