A couple weeks ago in Sunday School we read Jesus’ Parable of the Lost (Prodigal) Son from Luke’s gospel in the Christian New Testament.
Long story short – and this does not do it justice – younger son asks for his inheritance then runs away and wastes it all. He ends up broke just as a famine hits and finds himself in a foreign land eating worse than the pigs. He decides to return to his father, who not only forgives him but throws a party with the fattened calf because he is so glad his lost son has returned. The older brother won’t come to the party, because he doesn’t see why anyone should celebrate the return of his reprobate younger brother. In this tale of sibling rivalry at its finest, you’re left wondering whether both sons have been lost and need to be found!
Many people heard this story in church from the perspective of the younger son. There is much celebrating in heaven when the sinful return to God. That makes for an easy sermon – repent and return to God, who will forgive you even when you don’t feel like you can be forgiven.
It has become standard in the past few years to make the point of the story about the older son and his unwillingness to celebrate when the lost return home. There are a lot of “older sons” in the Christian church today!
Sometimes, as our Sunday School teacher did in our class, the story is even presented from the perspective of the Father. If we assume that the father in the story is like God, what can we learn about who God is and is not.
As long-time pastors, my husband and I have preached on this text more than once. Since we’re always trying to come up with something new, we joke about other perspectives to tell the story from. Our most recent joke is “how can we tell the story from the perspective of the fattened calf?” It sounds like he’s the only real loser in this whole situation!
So when I was thinking about Thanksgiving, this story came to mind and I thought about that turkey on the table. Unless he is made of tofu, he doesn’t really have all that much to be thankful for this holiday season, does he? I want to come up with all kinds of platitudes about how the turkey is living into its destiny, by becoming my dinner. But of course that’s silly; the point is that the turkey and the calf really aren’t LIVING into anything!
So we could talk about sacrifice. Jim Kristofic describes in his memoir, Navajos Wear Nikes: A Reservation Life the gratitude that the people he meets on the reservation still offer to the animals that sacrifice their lives for food. I am very grateful, which is appropriate on Thanksgiving, that there was a turkey available to become my meal. But I doubt it would choose to sacrifice for me on its own volition, just as the calf probably enjoyed being fattened more than being offered up for party hors d’oeuvres.
And yet Christians are asked to sacrifice themselves on behalf of the good news, to be willing to give up even their lives if that is what is needed for the Blessed Community God is calling into being. I offered a talk once to a group of women and suggested that through the years Christian women had been encouraged to take on that mantle of sacrifice, often to their own detriment, and that some men were happy to let them carry that cross alone. But many people, men and women, feel called to sacrifice for God. And there’s the spiritual rub. In my conversations with God, I am not called to sacrifice. I am called to live the life that God intends for me. Sacrifice is one of the things I might have to do along the way, but it is not the thing I’m supposed to be looking to do. Building the community is the job; sacrifice is but one tool.
Maybe that’s the joy in being a turkey just before Thanksgiving, at least if you’re the cage-free, organic, pretty good life on a farm kind of turkey that I am fortunate to be able to afford for the past several years. You’re not living your life for the sacrifice that comes at the end. Unless you’re Reggie, the movie turkey in Free Birds, you don’t know what’s coming- you only know that you were put here to live into your potential.
Now we’re not turkeys! That’s something to be grateful for when you pray around the Thanksgiving table! But that also means the life we are called to is a little more than snapping up grasshoppers and corn. And eventually our calling might lead to sacrifice. But we do not live for that. We live for doing the hundred everyday little things and the few, but critical big things that God has for us to do in the world. It’s not that I’m grateful to have to sacrifice sometimes, but I am thankful God cares about me enough to invite me into the work that may require a sacrifice someday. I can think of no better thing to be thankful for this year than a life spent doing God’s work in the world.
Have you had to make sacrifices in your work for God in the world? Is it hard to be thankful about them? Is it easier to be thankful for being invited into the work? Do you find it silly to think about the turkey at Thanksgiving or the fattened calf in the Bible story of the Lost Son? Do you have some other perspectives that might be fruitful for meditation? What are you grateful this Thanksgiving season?
If you need a companion on your spiritual journey, consider a spiritual director. You can find our more at Spiritual Directors International (www.sdiworld.org) or my website at www.letthespiritin.com.
I will be out of the country in South Africa until November 26th, so if you contact me, I may not respond until then. I am leaving my computer at home and will not always have internet access.