Listen to our service and sermon below:
A woman had two sons.
This isn’t a parable from the Bible – women don’t show up all that much in those – it’s a true story. A woman had two sons, identical twins, in a rural village in Colombia, in 1988. Right after they were born, one of the babies needed medical treatment, so a family member traveled the six hours to the capital city of Bogotá, to get the newborn to the hospital.
At that same time, at that same hospital in Bogotá, another woman gave birth to identical twin sons. When it was time for the babies to be discharged, there was a mix-up. The baby boy from the rural village was accidentally switched with one of the twin babies from the city. So Jorge and Carlos were raised as fraternal twin brothers in Bogotá, while William and Wilber were raised as fraternal twin brothers in Santander.
Twenty-five years later, William and Wilbur moved to Bogotá, where they both got jobs at a butcher shop. One day, a coworker of Jorge’s came into the shop and was surprised to see Jorge working behind the counter. Only it wasn’t Jorge, of course, it was his identical twin brother William. One thing led to another and the coworker arranged a meet-up for Jorge and William. Wilbur came along. Surrounded by friends, Jorge and William met for the first time and were astonished at how completely identical they were. They had a deep, instant connection. And when Jorge saw Wilber, he realized it was like looking at his brother Carlos. The three men then hurried to the home of Jorge and Carlos, to share with him their astonishing discovery. Each man unknowingly had a long-lost identical brother. Lost, but now found.
But the discovery was difficult for Carlos. He felt like his whole life had been a lie. He had loved the mother who had raised him, and who was now deceased. He loved his sister, whom he now learned was not his biological sister. Who was his family? What did family even mean? And who was he, now that he knew the truth?[i]
There were other losses, too. Lost time with parents and siblings and extended family. Lost opportunities. Lost years. The young men described the experience of finding each other as a feeling like vertigo. It was like “going down a hole and not being able to feel the bottom…”[ii]
You don’t have to find a long-lost surprise identical twin to understand the feeling of free-fall. Sooner or later, all of us have experiences that upend our understanding of ourselves, of our reality, of our past, of our future. It can feel like falling. A hole opens up in our lives. We lose something we’d always understood as essential. Loss is a part of life, and if we live long enough, the losses will pile up behind us and around us. Maybe within us, too. Sometimes even we ourselves become lost.
A man had two sons. This story isa parable from the Bible. Jesus told it to the religious folks who were scandalized by his unreserved acceptance of unacceptable people. Those people somehow found their way to him, and he welcomed them with joy rather than judgment. And the religious leaders resented it. So he told them this story.
A man had two sons. The younger one went to his father and asked for his share of his inheritance, even though the father was still very much alive. If you think this sounds kind of greedy, I agree with you. If you think it sounds like he sort of wished his father were already dead, you may be right. If you are wondering what kind of financial jeopardy such a money grab might cause for the family business while the family is still trying to make a living, I’m right there with you.
But the father in this story takes the loss. He divides his property between his two sons and then the younger one takes off for a far country, where he squanders his entire inheritance in the most morally questionable ways. He has nothing left when a severe famine hits. He hires himself out to a Gentile, who has him feed pigs – a disgraceful job for a Jew – and nobody gives him anything. He has gone from being given everything to being given nothing at all. His loss is total.
When he gets to the point where he is even looking at the pig slop with desire, he realizes he would be better off working for his father than dying of hunger. Through his own bad decisions, he has lost not only his inheritance but also his identity as his father’s son. He has basically treated his father as dead. He has essentially made himself dead to his family.
Now he prepares a speech and heads home. Is he truly sorry? Or is he merely calculating how to most effectively manipulate his father? Apparently, it doesn’t matter. While he is still far off, his father sees him. He runs to him, throws arms around him, kisses him, interrupts his apology to call for a robe, a ring, sandals, a feast – a party. “Let’s eat and celebrate!” the father says, “For my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and now he’s found!”
Of all the losses you’ve sustained in your life so far, what if you could undo the biggest, most heartbreaking one? If your biggest loss is the loss of a person – your parent, your child, your sibling, your spouse, your friend, your fiancé – if the most shattering loss you’ve sustained has been the loss of a person, whether by death or other disaster, what lengths would you go to, if that person returned, what lengths would you go to in order to welcome them home, to celebrate, to share your joy with everyone? Wouldn’t your embrace of them be absolutely unconditional? Wouldn’t you celebrate without counting the cost? There is probably no price you would not pay to have them back in your arms. And if you were to wake up tomorrow and find them there, there’s probably no price you would not pay to celebrate, to welcome them, to show them and keep showing them how much you love them.
With the party in this parable well under way, the older son in this story finally comes into view for the first time. He has been working in the field, which is what he has presumably been doing every day since his younger brother took off. Coming in from his work, he hears music and dancing. He calls one of the slaves over to ask what’s happening, and the slave tells him his brother is home and his father has killed the fatted calf to celebrate.
Who has been raising that calf? And whose robe and ring and sandals is his younger brother wearing? And whose money is paying for that party? It doesn’t belong to the younger brother, of course – he has already spent every bit of hisinheritance. And everything that remains – doesn’t it all belong to the one who never left? This steadfast, faithful older son – this is his inheritance. This party costs him something. And after all that he has watched his brother put his father through, how is he supposed to celebrate now? No wonder he is angry. No wonder he refuses to go in. Welcome his little brother home, sure, but let’s set some limits this time. Let’s set some expectations. Let’s make sure what he put us through before never happens again. Welcome him home, but don’t throw a party. It’s not fair. (Grace never is.)
Sometimes, after a terrible loss, it’s hard not to be resentful. It’s hard not to be suspicious. It’s hard not to be self-protective. Loss changes us, and not necessarily for the better. Sometimes, it may seem that the only way to survive a loss is by letting the hurt turn to anger. And if we hold onto that anger long enough, it can turn into bitterness.
Just as the father had run to meet his younger son while he was still far off, so now the father goes out to find his older son. He pleads with him to join the party. The older son then speaks his pain. All these years. All these years. I’ve been working like a slave for you. I’ve never disobeyed you. And you’ve never even given me so much as a little goat so I could have a party with my friends. But this son of yours comes back, having squandered everything you gave him, and you kill the prize calf for him!
I get it, older brother. I really do.
But I also hear what he has done to himself, don’t you? His sense of loss, his sense of burden and obligation, his pain – he has let it sharpen and deepen for so long that it has shaped how he sees himself. He has made himself not a son, not a brother, but a slave. He, just like his younger brother, has removed himself from the family. Just not physically. He has cut himself off. He has had everything – but he can’t see it, so he can’t live like it. He has had everything, but by not living like it, he, like his brother, has squandered it. He never left, but it sounds like he got lost anyway.
I wonder what he will do now. I wonder how he will respond to his father’s invitation to party.
Jorge and Carlos and William and Wilber were 25 years old when they finally found each other. Before that moment, they didn’t have any idea of what they had lost. To find and to be found – what a beautiful thing. And what a painful thing it can be, too. Because even when what was lost has been found, you don’t get to go back to the way things were before, or to the way things could’ve been or should’ve been. You can try. But there is no going back. You can only go forward. We don’t have a choice about that. But we do get to choose how we do it – with resistance or embrace, with resentment or joy.
Jorge and Carlos and William and Wilber chose the harder path. They chose the path of embrace, even though it meant accepting new self-understandings and new kinds of relationships. They had to reimagine the story of their lives and of their family. They had to expand their understanding of what it meant to be a brother. They determined to build something good out of a terrible mistake. They began to refer to themselves as “four brothers.” They started working to support each other’s dreams and projects. They bought a house together. They throw parties.
The price of joy is letting go what we thought shouldbe so that we can embrace what actually is. Maybe you’ve survived more loss than you ever thought possible. Maybe you are struggling to survive loss even now. Even so, beyond what you can imagine, you have also already been found.
Whether we know it or not, whether we expect it or accept it or resent it or resist it, we have been embraced by the reckless, boundless, extravagant, affirming, welcoming love of God. In the midst of our losses, and even when we ourselves are lost, we are held in arms of joy and love, without reservation or condition. “You are always with me,” the voice of God proclaims through Jesus, “and all that is mine is yours.”
Can you join the party?
[i]“What Twins Can Tell Us About Who We Are,” Hidden Brain(podcast), host Shankar Vedantam with guest psychologist Nancy Segal, March 25, 2019. https://www.npr.org/2019/03/21/705487258/what-twins-can-tell-us-about-who-we-are
[ii]As described by Dr. Yesika Montoya, a psychologist who interviewed the brothers, in “In Colombia, a Curious Case of Mixed-Up Twins and Brotherly Love,” Fordham News, August 30, 2018. https://news.fordham.edu/fordham-magazine/in-colombia-a-curious-case-of-mixed-up-twins-and-brotherly-love/