There’s a story I remember, very well, from the first time I ever preached in front of a full congregation on a Sunday. And it has absolutely nothing to do with what I preached on, and honestly, I have no idea what I preached on that day.
A group of my friends came to see me preach, and they kind of clumped together in the area right in front of the pulpit at St. John’s Georgetown. I preached my little sermon, and my friends beamed at me, it was lovely.
Service went on and it was soon time to pass the peace. And my great friend Jack Jenkins turned around to pass the peace to the person behind him, and he said “Peace be with you…Madam Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.”
This would happen a couple of times, including once to my friend Madeline, who squealed a little.
When you live in DC and you are an Episcopalian (or a Methodist), sometimes you go to church with famous political figures. Michelle Obama once winked and smiled at my Mom, I met George HW Bush and Barbara Bush at church.
Usually, those meetings are just in passing though. Really fun, great stories, but a small moment in time. Things we remember, but they probably don’t
But Madeleine Albright was a member of St. John’s, so I interacted with her on a regular basis. She was always kind and remembered my name.
And then I started preaching.
She made a point of making sure that I knew she was paying attention, and to offer me sincere encouragement. She understood the role that she played in the lives of young women my age, and she used her position to be kind, and lift me up.
I preached the Sunday after the Paris shootings, and she hugged me. I preached a racial justice sermon the Sunday after the Dallas police shootings, and she put an arm around me and said “Cara, you did a good job preaching on a very difficult topic. Keep it up.”; that moment is filed away in my brain and brought out for those moments when ministry is hard.
The thing about Madeleine Albright that I think is important to mention today though is that she understood how to use power in a way that is guided by love.
Love, as we have discussed once or twice since I arrived here, isn’t some passive thing. It’s a verb, that drives us into action.
Love can motivate us to do all sorts of things. It motivates Mom’s to lift cars or fight of bears to protect their children. Love of country is why the Russian and Ukrainian soldiers are fighting right now.
Madeleine Albright used love to form the basis of her foreign policy, which centered around meeting the basic needs of people around the world, rather than using political influence to get more political influence. She was not a perfect human, nor is her record as Secretary of State pristine, and I will not say otherwise. But she was very good at understanding that her role was to, whenever possible, lift others up rather than tearing them down.
Madeline did her best to be guided by love. I think that’s why she was so supportive and encouraging to me. And let’s be honest, she didn’t have to be supportive or encouraging to me. Just getting to say that I’ve preached to Madeline Albright is a good story on it’s own.
But she made sure to tell me I had done well, that I had given her things to think about, to make sure I knew she thought I would be good at this.
We should all be intentional to make sure we tell people they are doing well, especially if they are younger in our field. Offer support, rather than just ways and advice to be “successful.”
Most of us have to find ways of becoming who we are, rather than who we are expected to be, rather than having a simple path laid before us. We must become, rather than be born a finished product.
Inspired by Madam Secretary and the way that she helped and encouraged me to become the priest I am, and a person who is willing to lay her heart bare for the things she loves, I offer this installment of our ongoing series: the journey to becoming is long. There are MANY distractions along the way. And maybe it’s ok to be a bit distracted, as long as we come back to the path.
I say that last part because that’s what happens in the parable of the prodigal son, in several different ways.
When we look at this parable with modern eyes we lose a fair amount of the intricate societal details that makes this parable so interesting. We lost more when we simply cast the father as God, and then cast ourselves as one of the two sons.
And we lose even more when we fail to put this parable in it’s scriptural context and historical context.
Scripturally, this story comes as a response to the grumblings of a few Pharisees, and follows the parables of the lost sheep and of the poor widow and the lost coin.
This week I read an article by a Lutheran pastor, Niveen Sarras, who is a Palestinian Christian (though she is now at a church in Wisconsin).
And I would like to share a few things she said. Because she understands the culture of modern-day Palestine, and the way that modern day Palestine reflects the ancient world captured in this Parable. In the ancient world, and today, Palestine is an honor/shame culture. How you behave reflects not just on you, but also on your entire family. Your successes are shared and lift everyone. Your failures bring embarrassment and shame for yourself and your entire family.
Reverend Sarras tells us that the younger son, in looking at his father and saying “give me my part of my inheritance”, this son was saying, essentially, “I wish you were dead; you are dead to me.”
By doing this, the son ostracized himself from his family and his culture. He would have had to leave the region. So he did. And his behavior in the foreign country only brings further shame on himself and his father.
He leads a lifestyle that left him deemed him unclean, and a total failure. Broke. Far worse off than he started. The son then shames himself, and his father, further, by becoming desperate and feeding pigs to survive. Pigs, let us remember, were unclean animal in his culture. Basically, this son has become as lowly as a person can become.
He goes home, a broken, broke, and shamed filled person. He’s humbled, penitent, and repents. He physically returns to his father, hopeful to be given even a job that will allow him to eat, not seeking forgiveness.
Most parents at the time would have cut ties and turned their back once a child behaved like this. That is even what the older brother is expecting – it’s what society said to do. It’s still what society says to do.
Instead, the father runs to his son. Systematic theologian NT Wright explains that senior figures in a family or community do not run; it’s undignified. But this father runs to his son. Embraces him. And then hears the son out.
He hears the humility. He hears the change.
And the father’s response is to welcome his son back into his household. Without an inheritance, but with love and security. A secure present, from which the son can try to build a future for himself.
It’s floated around a bit that the message of Jesus is radically counter cultural. And this parable is a prime example of why.
People hearing his words would have been astonished at many actions throughout this parable, the demand of an inheritance, the squandering and dissolute living, working with pigs, coming home, being embraced, the father forgiving all and welcoming him home.
All of the parable of the prodigal son is radically counter cultural. It takes societal norms and expectations and turns them on their heads. And Jesus still demands that we be radically counter cultural when society isn’t living up to the standards that God requires.
What God requires of us is to be accepting of others, and where they are in life. And, to help them up, rather than using them as stepping stones. In the journey to becoming, it’s important that we not hurt others as we are becoming who we are. We also need to lift others up, especially as we have been lifted.
We also need to be willing to listen to people when they say we have hurt them, made them feel unsafe, or unwelcome.
We need to be willing to listen in order to find places where we can be more embracing of where love is pointing us, and more aware of the places where love is pointing us in a different direction than societal or cultural expectations.
If I were to try to pull away a single meaning from the parable of the prodigal son, it would probably be that this is a story about becoming, and then accepting who a person has become, especially when they become something different than what we expected. Sometimes this means being accepting of someone who society says you shouldn’t be.
The son did some seriously wrong things; and eventually, did some serious growing up. He admitted he was wrong, in many ways and on many levels. He accepted that he had made mistakes, he owned those mistakes, and requested that he be welcomed back into relationship in a very different way; because the idea of being accepted back as a member of his father’s household was, to him and to society, closed off.
Instead, the father accepted him with open arms. And he did so before the apology came, but, and this is important, he still left space for that apology. He didn’t say it was all ok. But he did allow for a relationship to exist again where it was thought to be dead.
The father accepted that there was a past and that his son was ready to be different.
Is this a perfect, neat parable with clear and apparent correlations in modern life, no.
But, I think continues to be pretty common that society instructs us to behave in a way that is dismissive or harmful, rather than uplifting and supportive. Society tells us to do what we have to do to be successful. Society tells us it’s okay to dismiss or tarnish or use others to get to where we want to be.
But in the journey of becoming, and of allowing others to become as well, we cannot put our own ambitions above the humanity of others.
We are on a constant journey of becoming, and so is everyone else. It’s not an either/or situation, at least it isn’t when we are listening to the Spirit and being guided by love.
And when we get to where we’re going, or when our journey of becoming becomes less about where we are going and more about utilizing what we have learned and become along the way; when we get to that place we need to use what we have to help others along their paths.
Madeleine Albright did that for me. She put an arm around me and helped me in the early days of becoming a person who is following the call of God. My path hasn’t lead to being an ambassador or the Secretary of State, but she encouraged me to enter to a male dominated field, and showed me how I can support others by how she supported me.
There are things that each of us can do to help ourselves and others as they journey through life. I just sometimes wonder, and I invite each of us to wonder as well, why this is such a rare thing? It’s so impactful. Why doesn’t it happen more often? Is there something we can do, say, offer, to help someone else along their path?