*This original story was told in a suburban Lancaster, PA church on the fourth Sunday of Lent
Before we get to the biblical text for today, I need to tell you a story. It's a story about a mother and her daughter. Possibly you may recognize them. They may be connected to this church. You'll have to let me know. That's why I want to tell you their story. There was once a mother and daughter. Their family moved to Lancaster quite a few years ago from New York. The reason they moved was because the father had died from cancer. With the mounting hospital bills, they were struggling to make ends meet living in the city. So, the mother moved back to Lancaster with her daughter, where they could be close to relatives.
The move was hard on the daughter. She had grown up in New York, with its fast pace lifestyle, bright lights, night life, plenty of things to do, a world away from Lancaster. Plus, moving while you're in high school is no piece of cake. You have to leave friends and familiar places. It's tough. When they got settled into Lancaster, they became part of a Mennonite congregation. It may have been was this one. I don't know. But, let me continue. The daughter was bored to death going to church. She whined every Sunday her mother told her it was time to leave. She never forced her daughter to go. Her mother was pretty lenient. Some say too lenient. Their relatives said the mother wasn't much of a disciplinarian. At times it seemed as if this mother let her daughter walk all over; treat her as if she wasn't even alive.
That particularly seemed to be the case when her daughter came to her one day and asked her if she could have her college savings. She wanted to leave Lancaster and move back to New York and live on her own. Most parents would have put their foot down and forbidden her to leave. But, her mom knew that she'd just run away. She'd rather give her daughter the money. At least she'd know her daughter would have a place to stay, instead of living on the streets. That would have killed her mother, and maybe the daughter as well.
Can you believe it? She went to the bank and drew out every last penny she had worked so hard for and saved, including what she got from her husband's retirement after he died. She withdrew all the money and handed over a stack of crisp, new bills to her daughter. It wouldn't be stretching the truth if we described this mother as "prodigal," if we understand its dictionary definition as "recklessly wasteful." Who of usfrugal Mennonites that we are, would do such an extravagant, act of squandering? We reuse copy paper! Who would give their child a big wad of money to run off to New York City? If your wondering how kids today got so messed up, just look at their parents!
The daughter caught a Greyhound and headed for the Big Apple. Her mom cried when the door of the bus closed. The daughter couldn't wait to take a big bite out of the city. On her first day back in New York, she found a one room apartment, if you could call it that, in a run down part of the city. There were broken bottles and old syringes laying on the sidewalk. Her apartment was a bed, bathroom, and bare walls. Cockroaches dined on the crumbs lying on the wood floor. The building had a faint smell of urine. But, she didn't want to spend all her money on rent. It was just going to be a place to crash. She had partyin' on her mind.
Her first night in the city and she was trying to hit all the clubs. She paid someone to make her a fake ID, even though she looked and dressed a lot older than she was. She loved the night life, the club scene. The stars of the night found her gyrating beneath the colored lights on the dance floor and sniffing something up her nose. Before the first rays of sun hit the tall buildings downtown, she had wallowed in pleasure and had a tattoo of a Porky Pig etched on her arm. This was the time of her life, free from all the restraints and rules of her mom. At about 6:00 am in the morning she flopped down on her bed and didn't get up all the next day. When the sun peeked through the cracks in the blinds the following day, she awoke to find her head on a pillow of warm flesh. As she focused her eyes she could see clearly the silver ring of a pierced navel.
The party scene went on for a few weeks before she noticed that her money was quickly slipping through her fingers. After only one month of club hopping, she couldn't pay her rent. Her landlord threw her out on the street. All she had was a tattered suitcase tied together with a piece of rope. The next few nights she slept in a cardboard box under an overpass. She was afraid of what might happen to her, but she had nowhere else to go. The third day, she woke to a homeless man searching through her pockets. She jumped up and yelled at him, scaring him away. The odor of stale beer floating through the morning air like a smelling salt woke her up. She headed downtown. Maybe she could panhandle enough to get a meal. She hadn't eaten in days. With no handouts after five or six hours of panhandling, she was hungry and desperate. Her belly growled to the rhythm of the passing taxis. She spotted a McDonald's and went behind the building to rummage through the trash bins. Near the bottom of one was a half-eaten burger and a watered-down coke. As unappetizing as it was, her stomach was in no mood for being picky. Her arms weren't long enough to reach inside. As she leaned into the bin, she lost her balance and fell inside with a loud crash. The smell was enough to make her gag, but she gobbled down the piece of burger and washed it down with the watery coke. With a crumpled napkin she wiped every trace of dignity from her face.
Sitting at the bottom of the trash bin, it hit her. She didn't have to live like this. There were young women selling their bodies on the street that made enough to survive. She had seen some of them eating in the better restaurants downtown. As she was thinking about food, she flashed back to the Thanksgiving meals she used to have when she was young. Mom and dad at the table. Smiling. Cornucopia centerpiece on the table. Their finest crystal china neatly set flanked by an array of spoons, forks, and knives. Tall glasses of sparkling grape juice. In the middle of the table a plump, steaming turkey stuffed with dressing. Mashed potatoes drenched in butter. Pumpkin pie with whipped cream .... mmmmmmmmm!
That's when she came to her senses. She didn't have to dine in a dumpster. She could hitchhike home to her mom. Crawling out of the bin, she began rehearsing what she was going to say. "Mom, I'm sorry I ran off. If you just give me a room to live in for a while, I'll work it off for you." She took a quarter she found in the alley and dropped it into a pay phone. "Yes, I want to make a collect call to Lancaster ... " As she waited on the phone she caught sight of a bag lady out of the corner of her eye. The woman looked a little like her mom. "Mom?" There was silence on the other end of the line. "Mom, I want to come home."
On the day her daughter was coming home from New York, the mother waited on her front porch all day long, pacing back and forth, looking both ways down the block. Her daughter was supposed to get dropped off near their brick row house. Every few minutes the mother would walk out onto the sidewalk and look both ways for any sign of a lost teenager. Her neighbor waved and she waved back, but returned to her vigil on the porch.
Just as the sun was setting and the shadows of the trees fell on the houses, this mother saw someone get out of a car and start walking down the block. She put her hand over her brow to shade the sun and strained to see if she recognized the approaching figure. The next thing you know, she's in a full sprint down the sidewalk. She doesn't care what the neighbors might think seeing her, a grown woman, running as fast as she can down the street in Lancaster. Mother and daughter come together in a big bear hug in the middle of the street. A car honks at them, but they just stand in the middle of the street hugging each other. Tears are streaming down their cheeks. "I thought you were dead, or lost in the city," her mother sobs. "Mom, I'm sorry I left home. I'f you just give me a room ... " "Hush," cries her mother, "Honey, you're alive! I thought you were dead or lost, but I've found you. All that matters now is that you're home. You're home!"
Imagine this...I get a call early this morning as I'm going over my sermon. It's this mother. She says this is her church. She claims to be one of us. Do any of you remember her? How about her daughter? You should have heard her on the phone. It would have made you either cry or shout for joy or both. This mother was bubbling over with pure joy over her daughter coming home. Now, here's the deal. This is why I told you the story. I need to know what you think. You won't believe this. Imagine. She'd like to know if she could use our church building to hold a party tonight. It's going to be a catered affair. Steaks. Caviar. Champagne. Balloons. Party horns. Streamers. A Rock band. Dancing. It's probably going to be a loud, raucous party. And get this. She's blowing her whole paycheck on this party! She doesn't sound like she's Mennonite to me. Like I told you, she's a prodigal mother, "recklessly wasteful." As reckless as a shepherd leaving his ninety-nine sheep alone in the wilderness to go after one stray. As wasteful as a woman throwing a shindig because she found her lost coin while sweeping.
I thought I should also tell you, the mother's invited a bunch of her daughter's "questionable" friends in from New York. Purple hair. Pierced tongues. Tight leather miniskirts. A real freak show. Now, I can understand if you don't want them in our building. Who knows what the neighbor's would think? We're a traditional, suburban church with an image to maintain. Besides, it wouldn't be good stewardship of our building, letting a bunch of outsiders use it. And a party just doesn't seem appropriate for a church. All that noise and music and dancing. Maybe we could handle something a bit more subdued and proper. I know for a fact, that neither the daughter nor her mother have been faithfully attending church like most of us here. Before we consider having outsiders come into our church and taking over what we've worked so hard to keep a certain way, maybe we ought to first have a congregational meeting and discuss it or process it through a council or write a policy or do something formal and organized. Come to think of it, we haven't even had that kind of party for ourselves, let alone for some .... some .... well, anyway. Besides, what kind of message would we be sending our children if we allowed such a recklessly wasteful mother to have a party in our church?
There's something else I forgot to ask you. Hold on to your pews. The mother wants all of us to come to the party. So, I told her I'd ask. Be honest now. Who's going to come to this party?